Introducing the IBOX, by Itead Studio:
I was lucky enough to receive an “engineering sample” of the IBOX to take for a test-drive. All of the images in this post link to full-resolution versions if you would like to take a closer look.
The IBOX is essentially an Allwinner A20 development platform, much like the Cubieboard 2 or the OLinuXino or the now unavailable Marsboard and various others. It features the dual-core A20 processor, 1GB RAM, 4GB NAND flash, a dual colour LED connected to GPIO, an infrared receiver, a micro SD card slot, 4x USB ports (of which one supports OTG), and HDMi port (full-size, yay!), TOSLINK optical audio, and 100mbps ethernet.
These are features which you might find on any other A20 development board, but there are a few things about this box that set it apart.
Firstly, the design of the box itself. Given the nature of development platforms, it is unusual to have it all caged up instead of on an open PCB showing off its guts. However, this presents the opportunity to use the device as a TV box as well. It is true that you can get cases with the other boards, but this one comes with the box. And the box is very nice – it is made of aluminium which gives it a very solid feel compared to the typical plastic boxes. The top is made of super-polished plastic and is EXTREMELY shiny. This attracts fingerprints, but if you can keep your hands off it then it shouldn’t be an issue and it will reward you with a perfect reflection of your face.
Now, the reason that this box is not an issue is because they have provided a 32pin header on the side of the box.
This header allows access to all of the GPIO, the SATA port, the serial port, analogue audio etc. The pinout can be found here. Backers of the Indiegogo campaign will receive an extension board which converts the serial port into USB, and provides connectors for the SATA port as well as GPIO pins in an Arduino-style layout. This allows for the use of standard Arduino shields.
Some people have complained that the serial port will not work, but I have found that these pins are just a little too small for standard 2.54mm female connectors. Of course, this won’t be an issue for those using the extension board. All of the debug output is on UART0 which is on pins 9 (TX) and 10 (RX). Serial is 3.3V, 115200 8N1.
The bottom of the case is held on with 4 easily removable screws. When you remove the plate, this is the site you’ll be greeted with. Not much going on here, except for the 10/100mbps Realtek PHYceiver. Since the bottom plate is also made of aluminium, I thought it could have done with some feet. There is nothing on the bottom to stop if from scratching whatever surface it lies on, although sticky feet are about the cheapest thing you could possibly buy for this so it isn’t a big issue. It is possible that production units will include rubber feet.
This is where things start to get exciting. While an A20 development board isn’t exactly a new thing, there is one really cool thing that Itead has done. As you can see, this is made up of two distinct boards. The mainboard, and the baseboard. The mainboard contains the processor, RAM, NAND flash, power management IC and everything else required to have a working computer. The baseboard contains the IO and some supporting circuitry.
The idea here is that you could design your own baseboard to suit your own needs and use the mainboard with any design. Alternatively, the IBOX itself can be upgraded with new mainboards as new models become available. For example, the Allwinner A31.
Ultimately, this is a well-constructed, well-priced piece of kit which will be sure to be a fierce competitor in the embedded PC and TV box market. The fact that it is modular makes it very attractive, as it is upgradable and takes a lot of the hard work out of designing your own mini embedded PC. I will cover the software side of things in part 2, coming very soon!
Comments and questions are welcome.